I stumbled onto the recipe for these Sicilian Fig Cookies years ago. Nobody makes a cookie like this – your great-grandma might’ve, but no one does anymore – and I’ve never seen one in a bakery. So old-fashioned. Naturally sweet, but not particularly sugary. Rich fig filling. Light, flaky cookie. It’s a cookie with strong pastry aspirations.
I happened upon Mary Ann Esposito baking them on Ciao Italia, on PBS WTTW, while channel surfing. Old-school show, old-school chef, old-school cookie. They’ve become a Christmas tradition at my house – though they’d be welcome any time of year. They have a long shelf life and freeze perfectly. I’ve converted the measurements to weight, tweaked the directions quite a bit, and provided copious notes.
What you need to make 4 dozen cookies:
FOR THE DOUGH:
4 cups unbleached, AP flour (or, 11 oz. bread flour plus 9 oz. cake flour)
1½ Tbs baking powder (5/8 oz.)
¼ tsp (heaping) coarse salt
½ cup sugar (3.5 oz.)
1 cup vegetable shortening (6.75 oz.)
1 large egg (1.75 oz.)
1 Tbs vanilla (0.75 oz.)
½ cup milk (4.25 oz.)
FOR THE FILLING:
2 cups dried (black mission) figs (12.5 oz., ca. 37 figs), soaked in warm water for no more than an hour
2 cups dried (Medjool) dates, pitted (8 oz. measured after pitting … somewhere between 14-34 dates)
1½ cups raisins (7 oz.)
2/3 cup walnuts or almonds (4 oz.)
½ cup honey (5.75 oz.)
1 tsp cinnamon
½ cup orange marmalade (5.25 oz.)
1 large egg white beaten with 1 Tbs water for egg wash
1 cup powdered sugar (4 oz.)
1 Tbs milk (0.5 oz.)
How to do make the dough:
- Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a large bowl. Add the sugar and whisk again. Work shortening into the mixture with a pastry cutter until it resembles a coarse meal.
- In a bowl, beat the egg, vanilla, and milk together. Add to the flour mixture and work the dough with your hands – in the bowl – until it comes together and is no longer sticky.
- Turn the dough out onto an unfloured work surface and knead for 5 minutes, or until smooth. Quite a workout, wasn’t it? You might be tempted to think, “Ugh! This is too much work!” Don’t think of it that way. Instead, think, “Hey, I just got a fantastic forearm workout while making cookies!” Trust me, doing this by hand produces the best results.
- Cut the dough into 4 (9.25 oz.) pieces, wrap each piece in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 45 minutes, or up to a week or more.
How to make the filling:
Grind the figs, dates, raisins, and nuts in a meat grinder on a “coarse” setting. (You can also do this in a food processor, or you can chop them by hand.) Place the mixture in a bowl, add the honey, cinnamon, marmalade, and mix well. The mixture will be thick. Set aside.
How to assemble, bake, and glaze the cookies:
- Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Line cookie sheets with Silpats.
- Work with 1 of the dough quarters at a time, keeping the others in the fridge. Lightly flour the dough and roll it out to a 12-inch square. Cut the dough into 4-x-3-inch rectangles.
- Spoon 2 Tbs of the filling mixture along one of the long ends of each rectangle. Flour your fingers and shape each cookie’s filling very roughly into a cylinder, along the dough edge. Roll the cookies up like cigars. Pinch each seam to close it securely, and turn the cookie seam side down. Pinch the ends closed and fold them under. Place the cookies in the fridge while you repeat these steps on the remaining dough quarters, one at a time.
- Retrieve a dozen cookies from the fridge and place them seam-side down a Silpat-lined cookie sheet. Gently coax the cookies into shallow crescents. Try not to let them split as you do this, but if they do, don’t fret about it so long as the split doesn’t go through more than half the cookie’s width.
- With a sharp knife, make 2 or 3 diagonal slits in the top – or vertical slits along the outer side – of each crescent, being careful not to scratch the Silpat. Push the cookies into full crescents. This should open up your slits a bit.
- Brush each cookie thoroughly – top and sides – with the egg wash.
- Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to wire racks to cool.
- To the powdered sugar, add the milk. Stir vigorously until no lumps remain. Drizzle this glaze over the fully-cooled cookies.
- I like to roll dough between two Silpats. That way, you can roll it out with minimal amounts of flour. Although nothing is supposed to stick to a Silpat, this dough will stick. You need just the barest dusting of flour to keep it from happening. You could use parchment instead of Silpats, but parchment slides around on the countertop.
- To roll dough into a square, start with a disc of dough, and begin each rolling action from the center, always rolling straight out to what you want to become the corners of the square, like this. If the dough defies you and looks more like a circle, use a beveled-edge ruler to cut square sides into your circle, and then fold the curves over, kind of like closing envelopes. Then, continue rolling until your square reaches the proper dimensions.
- When you’re ready to roll a cookie, use a bench scraper to loosen the filling-laden edge of the dough from the parchment.
- If you use the right amount of filling in each cookie, and your rectangles are the right size, the long edges of each rectangle should perfectly meet, or overlap barely, when you roll the cookies up.
- These cookies won’t spread at all, so if your cookie sheet holds more than a dozen of them, feel free to load it up.
- If any of your cookies split when you’re initially forming the crescents, vertical slits along the outer side of the crescent will help disguise this by hiding it in plain sight.
Sicilian Fig Cookies
This content was not solicited, sponsored, or written in exchange for anything – not by Ms. Esposito, not by PBS, nor the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique-Council (FIG) … not by anyone.
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